Our Callous Game of Musical Chairs


Posted by Bob Lord

The BlueMeanie pointed me to Kathleen Geier's piece at the the Washington Monthly, Deserving vs. undeserving poor — for the love of God, here we go again, which contains this brilliant analogy explaining the way in which we conflate two separate and distinct aspects of poverty:

In class, I often use the analogy of musical chairs to help students recognize this disconnect. Picture a game with ten players, but only eight chairs. When the music stops, who’s most likely to be left standing? It will be those who are at a disadvantage in terms of competing for the available chairs (less agility, reduced speed, a bad position when the music stops, and so on). However, given that the game is structured in a way such that two players are bound to lose, these individual attributes only explain who loses, not why there are losers in the first place. Ultimately, there are simply not enough chairs for those playing the game.

The critical mistake that’s been made in the past is that we‘ve equated the question of who loses at the game with the question of why the game inevitably produces losers. They are, in fact, distinct and separate questions. So while characteristics such as deficiencies in skills or education or being in a single parent family help to explain who’s at a heightened risk of encountering poverty, the fact that poverty exists in the first place results not from these characteristics, but from a failure of the economic and political structures to provide enough decent opportunities and supports for the whole of society.

By focusing solely upon individual characteristics, we can shuffle people up or down in terms of their likelihood to land a job with good earnings, but when there aren’t enough of these jobs to go around, somebody will still end up in poverty.

Our political class, mainly Republicans, but many Democrats as well, engage in this conflation in their efforts to justify their collective shirking of our moral responsibility to take care of all members of society. As Hubert Humphrey so eloquently noted:

It was once said that the moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped.

Remarkably, Humphrey did not represent the political left in his day. That would have been George McGovern. Humphrey was considered a centrist. Of course, in Humphrey's day, if a Rand Paul type stated publicly that the best thing we can do for the unemployed is cut them off, he wouldn't be part of the political debate. And he certainly wouldn't be serving in the U.S. Senate. That's how far we've fallen.


  1. I never left Bob. I have simply been standing quietly in the background since I apparently upset AzBlue.

    Now. “Critical thinking”, you disappoint me Bob.

    First of all, 99 weeks of unemployment was past in February of 2009! Did we all miss the “sustained periods of unemployment” prior to February of 2009? Secondly, changing the topic from a discussion on unemployment insurance to one of how liberal the New Deal was seems to me be comparing apples to oranges.

    Think logically Bob. Think logically.

  2. Dang, glad to see your back, but you’re comparing apples to oranges, don’t you think? In Humphrey’s day, we never had sustained periods of high unemployment, so there never was a need to promote 99 weeks of benefits. Had there been, such a proposal likely would have received widespread support. After all, in those days we were seeking to eradicate poverty. Do you realize the implication of your comment is that our politics are more liberal now than they were in Humphrey’s day? Are you serious?

    Think critically, Dang. Think critically.

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